Between teaching viola individually and in groups, directing the Missouri String Project, and playing professionally with several internationally renowned chamber music groups, music professor Leslie Perna keeps very busy. Yet you have the distinct impression in listening to her talk that all of her work is thoroughly enjoyable.
Perna speaks fondly about chamber music, particularly how she found herself drawn to it because of its highly collaborative and democratic nature. “Chamber music has always been my love,” she explains. In small ensembles there is only one person per part, a feature that makes playing in chamber groups more challenging than in a large symphony. And since there is no director or conductor involved, the situation inherently requires functional democracy. “It’s a wonderful, collaborative process,” she explains, because each individual must agree on every element of the music – from selecting the music to be played and determining what they want to express with each section, to deciding about nuances in phrasing and rhythm. Finding the quartet to be a singularly exciting combination, Perna observes that composers in the West have often chosen to express their most intimate emotions and thoughts through quartet music, a form that many claim is the perfect ensemble because of its four-part harmony. “Playing with a string quartet is a real pleasure and privilege for me,” she exclaims. “There’s just something about writing for that combination of voices; four just seems to be the magic number.”
The Esterhàzy Quartet, with whom Perna has been playing viola for ten years, specializes in performing works by contemporary living composers, even commissioning works to be written just for them. For this reason the group is able to editorialize at times, helping the piece to work better. Moreover, she goes on, “it’s always something that no one else has played, no one else has ever heard; and you get to bring it to life.” The Esterhàzy Quartet is active on the MU campus, as well as performing nationally and internationally. For the past six years, the quartet has also had a residency at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the largest such institution in the world, where they are involved with both the performance and the composition departments. As a result of this residency, they also have the opportunity to collaborate directly with composers, performing their pieces and becoming part of the composition process itself. As Perna puts it, “I love working with living composers and contemporary music. Bringing to life something that no one has heard is a magical thing.”
When asked about her philosophy of music, Perna responds that “all music speaks to us in a way, of course, that words can’t. It evokes something in us; it changes the way we were thinking.” She goes on to explain that classical music differs from “popular” music in that it was designed to last longer and go deeper. It requires the listener to work to understand the subtler meanings inherent in it, and its sophisticated and subtle architecture makes the experience more interesting, complex, and compelling to many. “We’re talking about music that we’re still playing four hundred years later, that still evokes a powerful emotion,” she notes. The bottom line for Perna – and the reason she joyfully keeps playing and teaching others to play and to teach – is her strong belief in the power of music to satisfy profound human needs. “Music may not put food on your table,” she admits, but “what [musicians] do affects you spiritually, emotionally; it affects the soul and the mind.” Perna thus sees it as her duty to pass along what she has learned to subsequent generations of musicians, doing her part to enrich the lives of individuals and the communities in which they live.
In addition to performing on viola and teaching university-level music majors how to play, Perna directs the Missouri String Project, which has been active at Mizzou for no fewer than 34 years. This organization offers third- and fourth-graders the chance to learn a stringed instrument – violin, viola, or cello – from MU music majors. While the youngsters get to study with budding music teachers, the undergraduates receive valuable hands-on training that will serve them well in their future teaching jobs. “It’s a win-win situation,” observes Perna.
To have the kind of occupation that benefits the public in such a profound as well as practical way, to work so hard and consistently at it, and yet be able to describe all of her demanding tasks as “fun” is truly a blessing, a fact of which Perna is keenly aware.